Oxford taking high expectations in stride heading into new season

Published 12:02 pm Thursday, February 25, 2016

Excitement around Oxford’s baseball program is at a fever pitch.

The nationally ranked Chargers have added more talent to a team with more than half its starters back from last year’s state championship squad. Anybody other than Oxford hoisting the Class 5A title trophy in Pearl again this season would be a shock.

“(Our players) don’t really put a whole lot of stock in it,” Oxford coach Chris Baughman said. “I think they’re excited about it, but the feeling I get from them is we want to finish there. We want to finish No. 1 in the state.”

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Back are arguably the state’s top two arms in seniors Jason Barber and Houston Roth as well as shortstop Grae Kessinger, third baseman Ben Bianco, second baseman Drew Bianco and outfielder Sage Mullins. The Chargers lost catcher and leading hitter Jack McClure to graduation but replaced him with Thomas Dillard, one of the nation’s top prep catchers who transferred from Briarcrest Christian School.

The group is versatile as Barber (third) and Roth (right field) will play other positions when they’re not pitching, and Dillard will play right when Roth throws. Ben Bianco will move behind the plate to spell Dillard at times while Kessinger is a candidate to close games on the mound.

Right-hander Carson Stinnett gives the Chargers a solid third arm. Preston Perkins and Duncan Graebar are the favorites to take over in center field and at first base, respectively, though Baughman said those position battles continue to play out.

A beefed-up schedule will test the Chargers more often than they were a season ago. Oxford will take part in the Mid-Mississippi Classic in the Jackson area the first week in March before traveling to Atlanta the following week to play in the Perfect Game High School Showcase, a tournament that includes defending national champion Parkview (Georgia).

“I want to see us deal with some pressure, and I want to see how we respond when maybe the outcome doesn’t go our way,” Baughman said. “Because we didn’t have to do that a lot last year.”

But the Chargers are trying to keep things normal as they prepare to deal with being the heavy favorites.

“You see us, and we’re always joking around and messing around,” Kessinger said. “It keeps us loose, and it keeps our heads off everything else. We come out here, and if we’re having fun, we’ll be playing our game. Good things will happen.”